THE GIFT OF WATER

Fond memories of summer by the big lake

By Linda Johnson
Dad drove the Chevy wagon right up onto the sandy bank where we first stepped out—dad, mother, we four kids, the dog. There lay Lake Superior, spread out like a dream. “Heavenly!” mother said in her native German. Across the decades, I can still see her on that day, standing in her green bathing suit, wind blowing her copper hair, father’s arm wrapped around her. The two of them are watching us children in the water, but mother’s gaze strays out across the lake, beyond.
That was the summer my brothers and I spent cooling off in the backyard with buckets of water. It was the summer dad quit drinking and the summer when we first saw Superior. One evening when dad came home from the Chevy plant, mother was making liverwurst sandwiches with pickles. “I’m not hungry,” he said, his back to her, walking outside to smoke. Mother had four children to care for all day in the heat, and she was tired but mostly, I think, hurt. Father seemed not to appreciate all that she did.
But that following Saturday morning, we packed for the camping trip that we all needed. We left the house first for the A&P, and father pulled into the lot. Mother let him shop alone while she waited with us children and the dog in the wagon. Had they agreed that father would shop alone, or was mother still hurt? The dog was jumping excitedly, and then dad came out pushing the full grocery cart. Five foot nine in boots and army fatigues, he had served in both the Pacific and European theaters. His head had once been split open by a grenade.
We drove out of town and found a campsite, and dad spread out the tent. “Let’s get this camp ship-shape, men!” he said.
His only daughter, I tunneled like a mole into the musty canvas with my brother John, searching for the center grommet. “Got it!” I shouted. John stood while I pushed the pole into the grommet. Sweaty and proud, we raised the roof in benediction of our camp, dad pulling the corners taut, pounding stakes with his axe.
The clothesline was strung up, the bed-rolls laid out—tasks mother would have tended to, but I have no memory of that or even of her cooking on that trip. Actually, mother was like an Olympic warrior, strong, and a couple inches taller than father. She had survived Hitler’s invasion into Austria, and now she ran our household. Has my memory diminished mother, made her shorter than father? Did the Lake really transform us all?
The dog broke out barking, running up and down the beach, celebrating his freedom. We children shot like bullets into the lake, celebrating our happiness. Diving in and out, calling Marco Polo, we circled my little brother, our laughter dissipating from the water into the pines, tensions lifting from mother, lifting from father.
Dad waved us out, but I lingered as long as I could in the blessing, one more dive and then another and another off the big rock, and then I collected my pile of precious stones. I could see all the way down to the sand bottom to each bright stone before I wrapped my hand around it. The water was so clear that I could drink it, and I did, quenching my thirst in that wonderful time of my life, like I would own it forever.
We children were hungry. Mother hadn’t brought her pumpernickel bread, her bucket of smoitz for frying potatoes—foods that kept us from being real Americans. Instead, dad had packed our food. For two weeks, we ate of the American dream that spills from the cornucopia—hotdogs, potato chips, Hershey bars, a whole watermelon kept cold in the lake of my dreams where I was baptized into citizenship.
We lived almost naked, in bathing suits. We dragged driftwood, carried stones for our fire ring, followed our father—god of my young dreams—along the huckleberry bank, where he severed branches with his glinting knife, and then, victorious, we marched back to camp with our sharpened hotdog sticks. Dad struck a match to the balled-up newspaper, letting time fall away, while we played Indian rug-burn and dad showed us how to throw a knife so it stuck in the sand. The last curl of burning wood dropped into the heart of the fire, and dad pushed a hotdog onto our sticks. Into that radiance, I slid mine, then brought it out, blackened, onto the bun. The sleepiness of the long day fell over me. Dad played his harmonica, the dog laid at my feet, all of us swaddled in the good, strong smell of our American camp.
My mother is mostly absent from this page of my memory, but only because she had given the gift of their father to his children, handing him the reins and he taking them. Together, they worked beyond the pain of their individual and shared history, blessing our camp next to the Lake with their loving effort. Never would summer taste so good again.

Contributor’s Note: Linda Johnson summers in Sault Ste. Marie with her extended family.

“The Gift of Water” columns are offered by the Northern Great Lakes Water Stewards and the Cedar Tree Institute, joined in an interfaith effort to help preserve, protect, and sanctify the waters of the Upper Peninsula.

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